Look Closer... American Beauty
For this article I thought we would look at the film from which this nostalgic film review series takes its title, and that is Sam Mendes 1999 Academy Award winning black-comedy, American Beauty.
As is my understanding, Alan Ball wrote American Beauty and originally intended for it be a stage play but eventually it somehow become a screenplay and was surprisingly (to him) incredibly popular to several major studios and filmmakers. For those who do not know, Alan Ball is the creative mind behind one of the single greatest television shows of all time; Six Feet Under. He is also one of the most needlessly messy and complicated televisions shows of all time, True Blood.
When American Beauty was first released it was met with pretty much universal acclaim; and the Oscars, with their love of all things in love with Americana, melodrama and mature seriousness, found American Beauty to be the best film of the year. The film also took numerous other Academy Awards, including best screenplay for Ball, best director for Sam Mendes and best actor for Kevin Spacey. It also won several Golden Globes but like, is that even a real thing anyways.
Culturally, American Beauty actually proved itself and I would argue that it has made a significant impact on the pop culture of the 21st century. I still recall seeing it for the first time and thinking it was the most clever, cool and outrageous film I had ever seen; however, the problem with that is that I was twelve years old at the time. This is where you start to see the cracks in what was considered by critics of the time to be the best film of the year. In the same year, I might add, that saw the release of other (more important) Hollywood films such as The Matrix, Eyes Wide Shut, The Blair Witch Project, Magnolia and Fight Club just to name a few.
Unlike all of the films mentioned above, American Beauty does not withstand the test of time very well; it is terribly dated and even nostalgic now in its colour pallet, fashion and sensibility to a certain degree. Now, when I say colour pallet I am not only referring to the choice of colour for clothing, makeup and nail polish although that is important, but these can be forgiven. What is problematic is that if you stop and look at American Beauty you’ll notice that it looks a lot like a Britney Spears 90s music video. It is shot, shaped and driven by colour that is very 90s in terms of its aesthetic, its contrast and occasional lack of.
I could forgive this in a film, quite frankly because not only do I enjoy the 90s aesthetic, but apparently so does everyone else as well... and so perhaps this would be an added bonus to the film; it becomes retro or chic in the way that the 80s was and in many ways still is. Indeed, there are pleasures in American Beauty; it is still funny at times and some images are rather strong, if not a little underdeveloped. But to sit through the entirety of the 121 minute running time, in which Mina Suvari is being an all around annoying teenage girl (and that IS the depth of her character), I’m sorry but I draw the line there. When I first saw this film, as most people I know, I was young and then later in my mid teens it sort of drew me back. The problem is that once you move on from being a teenager and realize that that was a temporary stage of your life, that really means very little now and is unlikely to repeat; you have very little time for a film in which three of its main characters are annoying teenagers with annoying teenager problems. Furthermore, It gets really frustrating when you wake up and realize that a character who you thought was cool and fun, is really just Kevin Spacey having a really bad midlife crisis. At which point you also want to hit him and say "grow up, get over it, you got your car and your weed, stop talking like a dick and buying drugs off the cute teenage boy next door that your daughter is fucking you creep."
Essentially as an adult watching American beauty, you realize that for all its laughs (and it is still a funny film at times) there is really only one character that you truly care for, that has depth and is actually fully formed, interesting and sympathetic. That is Annette Bening as Carolyn who sadly, although nominated for an Oscar lost out to Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry…I’d like to say that Annette Bening deserved it, but really, Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry was pretty fabulous.
What lets American Beauty down are all the things that you don’t notice when you are a young film-goer, because you are too wrapped up in the lives of these people who are going through similar crises to yourself. It’s the sloppy direction by Sam Mendes, who although at times can be a very mature filmmaker, is never really on the right point; he seems to always be too soft no matter what the subject matter. It’s Alan Ball’s pretense that shows up in ALL of his work, but yet at times manages to be forgiven due to witty dialog and lovable characters. But really American beauty has little of either. It’s the actual connection with the characters that is required in a film in which the main protagonist tells you that he will be dead within a week (or by the end of the film as it were) and then takes you on a journey expecting you to sympathize with him. Really I have to wonder how any adult was taken so far back upon the release of what is essentially a funny, but very flawed black comedy with delusions of significance. Perhaps it was the more impressive advertising campaign that told us all to ‘look closer…’. Follow the ad's advice and look closer at American Beauty, despite its occasionally funny moments it is an example of the way some films may overwhelm us at first, but then age worse than Macaulay Culkin and become just as irrelevant.